• Mike McGroarty

Conspiracies and Conspirators in Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

Perhaps no single event of the late Roman Republic during the years immediately preceding Julius Caesar’s civil war, the assassination of Caesar, and the rise of the Augustan regime has left so deep an impression in our minds and imaginations as the conspiracy, generally understood as having been led by senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), to overthrow the government of 63. B.C. Two first-hand accounts that present documentary evidence of the discovery and suppression of the attempted coup—commonly referred to as the Catilinarian Conspiracy—are the oratory, Against Catiline, by Marcus Tullius Cicero (Cicero), and the history, Conspiracy of Catiline, by Gaius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust). Less familiar to the everyday reader of history, but no less tumultuous in the lives of the Roman populace during the Imperial period, is the Pisonian conspiracy of A.D. 65. In Book XV of The Annals, historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (Tacitus) chronicles this plot to assassinate Emperor Nero and replace him with senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso—or whomever might have managed to emerge victorious among various competing factions.

The Catilinarian and Pisonian conspiracies, of course, are only two among many that rocked several Roman regimes. But as Victoria E. Pagán observes, during the five hundred years from the second century BCE until the third century CE, the word coniuratio occurs most often in the speeches of Cicero and the historical works of Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus. These works document various periods of Roman history as the story of the Roman ruling class from the perspective of elite male historians, writing for their peers. (30)

The word coniuratio, Thomas N. Habinek tells us, most often signifies a “‘swearing together’” of soldiers yet possesses a “Janus-like character,” which allows Cicero to attach it to “groups resisting either the political or the economic power of the state” (76-78). Indeed, the above three works and their authors (that is, Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus; I will leave out Livy for now) provide invaluable insights into the concerns of the ruling elite during these hyper-charged events that challenge their authority.

There are, however, some fundamental differences among them—differences that both reflect and are born out of key influential circumstances. These include the moment of the work’s creation in relation to the conspiracy, the political alignments of the writer, the trajectory of each writer’s career, and the genre to which each work belongs. These factors shape how we might conceive the writers’ distinct treatments of conspiracies, coups, and crises of political stability: Cicero’s determination to excise the Catilinarian rebellion through the verbal theatrics of “live,” public oration, Sallust’s striving to explicate the relationship between the rebellion and the debilitated body politic through a more subdued, “recorded” narrative, and Tacitus’s skillful lacerating of Rome’s craven upper stratum during an era of increased repression of “free speech.”

It’s worth noting a few of the similarities between the lives of the two Golden Age writer-politicians, Cicero and Sallust. Each is considered a homo novus—a designation that, while not excluding either from public office, nevertheless places them just outside the old-school, paternalist clique of the aristocracy. Both men, however, are born into wealthy, landowning families of the equestrian class, so they share a concern for the continuation of the social and financial status that membership in this “pre-industrial bourgeoisie” affords them. Throughout the turbulent period in which Catiline’s purported influence spreads, the dominant class to which Cicero and Sallust belong are keen to avert a potentially anarchic situation. And while both Against Catiline and Conspiracy of Catiline evince genuine concern for the commonwealth, both writers are equally anxious to secure and stabilize the traditional hierarchy. Gian Biagio Conte tells us that “from Caesar, [Sallust had] probably hoped for the creation of a policy not unlike Cicero expected from his princeps: an authoritarian regime that would be able to end the crisis of the state by reestablishing order in the Republic, strengthening concord among the wealthy classes, and restoring prestige and dignity to the Senate” (237). The urgency of the times brings opposing political parties—Cicero’s optimates, and Sallust’s populares—into the same confusing mess, which demands from them a thorough cleaning-up and straightening-out.

Far fewer of Tacitus’s biographical details are known to us, despite his reputation as “the greatest historian” of the Silver Age (or, to some, any age). Similar to Cicero and Sallust, he is likely born into an equestrian family or eventually finds himself enmeshed in the world of the political class, holding, over the course of his life, the positions of praetor, consul suffectus, and proconsul of Asia (Conte 530). He certainly has some access to the halls of power and official records, due in part to the clout and prestige of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who becomes the model of Tacitus’s idealistic example (The Agricola) of an upstanding citizen-statesmen maintaining dignity and strength amidst widespread corruption and weakness. During this era, the possibility, if one ever existed, of a “bipartisan” union of Cicero’s and Sallust’s ruling parties under the long-gone Republic is a blurry dream of the past. Conte writes: “In the moderate principate of the adoptive emperors Tacitus sees the only practicable solution” (536).

To Tacitus, if a straightening-out and cleaning-up can restore the Republic (an increasingly dubious prospect), then it requires good men doing the right thing: “benevolent dictators,” “enlightened despots,” etc. Through his account of the Pisonian Conspiracy, by way of a negative example, Tacitus shows us weak men doing the wrong things: despotism without the enlightenment.

Cicero’s and Sallust’s treatment of “their” conspiracy and attitude toward those involved interacts vigorously with their differing positions and vantage points. Habinek argues that through his repeated charge of “banditry,” Cicero “aims to deny his opponent standing within the community and to exclude him from the place of reasoned debate by aligning him with the very forces that the community cannot incorporate” (71). As Consul, Cicero contends with two primary responsibilities: not only must he crush an armed uprising, but he also must prove to his colleagues and to the wider populace that he—a kind of “outsider” homo novus facing a national calamity—is a tough, “no-nonsense” leader. One rhetorical strategy he employs in his address to the Senate is to portray himself as the commander of the anti-Catiline forces. C.D. Yonge’s translation brings to mind the image of a police-chief staring down an urban riot as he blares from a bullhorn: “You are hemmed in on all sides; all your plans are clearer than the day to us” (Cic. Catil. 1.3). Later, it enhances Cicero’s self-appointed role as the eyes and ears of the security state: “You do nothing, you plan nothing, you think of nothing which I not only do not hear, but which I do not see and know every particular of” (Cic. Catil. 1.3). K.H. Waters, however, sees little if any validity in Cicero’s “gross exaggeration” and even “fabrication” of the plot (208), arguing that what he is really after is “some positive achievement, such as the repression of a revolutionary movement, the prestige resulting from which, when added to his eloquence and unscrupulousness, would render him invaluable to the leading dynast” (211). The dramatic force of Cicero’s oratory casts a protective shield around nervous patricians in attendance while simultaneously casting a wide net around anyone even loosely associated with the plot. Most important for Cicero, he cements his image as a heroic savior.

Sallust, by contrast, writes his Conspiracy of Catiline about twenty years after the upheaval—from the reflective vantage point of a comfortable retirement. But while he might not be sweating under the pressures of political battle like Cicero, we can nevertheless imagine a man eager to reassert his mettle, especially considering the beleaguered state of his reputation (perhaps only half-deserved due to the machinations of bitter aristocrats) after a series of “moral” and administrative scandals (Conte 234). The relatively unharried circumstances furnish Sallust an opportunity to open with a defense of his own youthful transgressions:

...in the midst of so great corruption, my tender age was insnared and infected by ambition; and, though I shrunk from the vicious principles of those around me, yet the same eagerness for honors, the same obloquy and jealousy, which disquieted others, disquieted myself. (Sal. Cat. 3; Watson, tr.) This should serve as our first clue as to how Sallust will contextualize Catiline’s conspiracy. If the contaminated swamp of professional politics can do nothing but stir up the worst impulses of a man of decent (not infallible, but average) character like himself, then imagine, he hints, what it might do with a lesser character like Catiline. On the other hand, might we also see a hint of Sallust’s inability to own up to his personal foibles and professional failures? Even if, in Sallust’s conception, Catiline hasn’t caused every problem, all roads still lead to him. Keeping in mind the overall trajectory of Rome, in which the grip of the state will only tighten, we can understand Waters’s point that Sallust (and Cicero) have “inflated a very small affair and minor political careerist into the center-piece and the arch-villain of the unstable and unpleasant political world of the late Republic” (195). Perhaps, if we peel back the veneer of Sallust’s supposedly holistic rendering of the “interconnected,” or collective guilt of “society,” what we see is an individual man in mourning for his lost potency.

Only Tacitus knows how “good” Cicero and Sallust had it! That is to say, he’s all-too-aware of the tradeoff between his era’s relative tranquility and the sacrifice of liberty. “At the same time that he affirms that Augustus assured peace for the Empire after long years of civil war,” writes Conte about The Annals, “the historian also emphasizes how ever since then the yoke has become heavier” (539). To be sure, the political writer’s life (or the poet’s or the philosopher’s, for that matter) has never been risk-free, but, as Andrew Wallace-Hadrill explains, the straits they navigate become markedly more dire in Tacitus’s day:

In so far as the individual citizen had any rights and freedoms under the republic, it was the laws that guaranteed them. The laws were powerless against the will of the emperor…Freedom of speech was an area that attracted much attention. Since the execution of Cicero, no man had been free to speak against the dynast with power of life and death, except to the extent that he permitted it. (38)

Tacitus’s task is, therefore, more tricky and fraught with dangers than Sallust or Cicero (at least until the end) ever knew.

Throughout his history, Sallust presents Catiline as the natural by-product of a republic that has come to prioritize glory over decency, physical bravado over intellectual development, and the desire to be written about over quiet, humble satisfaction with one’s accomplishments. While he calls attention to Catiline’s innate flaws, he is equally (or perhaps even more so) concerned with the conditions that have allowed a character like Catiline to flourish. “The corrupt morals of the state, too, which extravagance and selfishness, pernicious and contending vices, rendered thoroughly depraved, furnished him with additional incentives to action” (Sal. Cat. 5; Watson, tr.). Sallust casts Catiline in a central role within a longer-term historical narrative; the most destructive forces are already in play before Catiline’s rise.

Cicero shares Sallust’s conception of a toxic socio-political atmosphere yet holds up Catiline and his followers as the most malicious outgrowth of it. In ranking the various classes of men according to the severity of each’s threat to security and decency (Cic. Catil. 2.8-2.10; Yonge, tr.), the least worrisome to him are the greedy yet timid opportunists among the wealthy, but the most problematic are those closest to Catiline, a motley crowd of malcontented aristocrats, urban workers, and veterans:

In these bands are all the gamblers, all the adulterers, all the unclean and shameless citizens. These boys, so witty and delicate, have learnt not only to love and to be loved, not only to sing and to dance, but also to brandish daggers and to administer poisons; and unless they are driven out, unless they die, even should Catiline die, I warn you that the school of Catiline would exist in the republic. (Cic. Catil. 2.10.23; Yonge, tr.)

Tacitus’s hierarchy of guilt is the reverse. He assigns the bulk of his antipathy to those of the highest rank while praising Epicharis, a former slave, for her courage: “All the nobler was the example set by a freedwoman at such a crisis in screening strangers and those whom she hardly knew, when freeborn men, Roman knights, and senators, yet unscathed by torture, betrayed, every one, his dearest kinsfolk” (Tac. Ann. 15.57; Church, tr.). Even the slave can rise above the muck to display virtue on par with Agricola. No such example exists in Sallust’s account because to him, as Waters says, “the lower orders are always ready for change, even for violent change” (206), and we can reasonably infer that this “change” would be disagreeable to Sallust, who yearns for a settling down of the restlessness. Tacitus’s low-born Epicharis finds herself caught up in a plot that entails revolutionary violence, and her remaining tight-lipped about this plot is, to borrow from Shakespeares’s Henry V, the essence of her “noble luster.” Contrary to Cicero, who aims to rouse the aristocratic fear of the Catilinarian mob—real or imagined—Tacitus aims to warn future generations “ready for change” against placing their faith in the back-stabbing aristocracy as a whole and to consider the potential for moral leadership from below.

What to do with and how to make sense of “what’s below” is the question. Cicero’s proposed remedy is an unapologetic extermination of the “unclean and shameless” until every last treasonous reprobate is dead, and even then, he stresses the possible reemergence of Catiline’s “school.” Sallust wants to forgive and forget. “When the battle was over,” he writes towards the end of his account, “it was plainly seen what boldness, and what energy of spirit, had prevailed throughout the army of Catiline” (Sal. Cat. 61; Watson, tr.). Safe at home, at least for the time being, Sallust ends the Conspiracy of Catiline with neither finger-wagging nor gloating. Instead, he honors the common humanity of all of those killed in the final battle, conspirators and Roman regulars alike:

Of many who went from the camp to view the ground, or plunder the slain, some, in turning over the bodies of the enemy, discovered a friend, others an acquaintance, others a relative; some, too, recognized their enemies. Thus, gladness and sorrow, grief and joy, were variously felt throughout the whole army. (Sal. Cat. 61; Watson, tr.)

Sallust prefers that the stain left by the events surrounding the conspiracy, rather than reduce the collective spirit to smugness, should instead encourage reconciliation. Of course, by the time he writes this, Julius Caesar would be assassinated, and Cicero—whose galvanizing oratory becomes a threat to the rising power of the Second Triumvirate—would be beheaded by agents of Marc Antony.

Needless to say, Cicero’s fate and many years of internecine violence hover in the background of Tacitus’s mind. As mentioned earlier, he accepts that some degree of social peace under government repression is the “least worst” option, at least for the time being. Yet how does the historiographer tell a meaningful, useful tale under these conditions? Tacitus’s chronological proximity to the events around Piso in general—and Nero, in particular—inform his approach. As early as Book XIII, “his style becomes richer and more elevated, less tight, sharp, and insinuating” (Conte 541). Unlike Cicero, who operates from a position of freshly accumulated power and who brazenly seeks to cement it, Tacitus treads more carefully. One might say he takes on a more Sallustian tone insofar as he “moves from choice, decorative expressions to those that are more sober and normal” (Conte 541). The scene between Epicharis and Proculus contains many overlapping strands of criminality and untrustworthiness, all related matter-of-factly:

There was a captain in the fleet, Volusius Proculus, who had been one of Nero's instruments in his mother's murder, and had not, as he thought, been promoted in proportion to the greatness of his crime. Either, as an old acquaintance of the woman, or on the strength of a recent intimacy, he divulged to her his services to Nero and their barren result to himself, adding complaints, and his determination to have vengeance, should the chance arise. (Tac. Ann. 15.51; Church, tr.)

While Tacitus doesn’t shy away from the killing of Agrippina, it’s not the dramatic focal point of the episode. A skilled reporter, Tacitus provides brief, relevant context without overshadowing the lead. Nevertheless, Nero’s crime is recorded here (among other places) for posterity, tucked into the cold and transactional interaction between two figures at the bottom of the social hierarchy. While Proculus and Epicharis are not morally perfect, the murderous depravity at the top is far worse, especially as it is now motivating “vengeance” against itself. The suggestion that Nero may or may not have reneged on a deal with Proculus (who knows for sure and does it matter?) is enough to portray the imperial line, from Tiberius and the Julio-Claudians to Domitian and the Flavians, as capable of running around in the dark with the vulgar, petty crooks of the underworld.

If Cicero is compelled to draw a line in the sand between “us and them,” conspirator and patriot, citizen and outsider, then Sallust seeks to reunite them, to reestablish their belonging to one Rome. Unlike the optimate Cicero, the popularis Sallust is sympathetic, outwardly at least, to the plight of the poor and the indebted, and while he condemns the actions of the misguided, he validates their dissatisfaction. Waters urges us to dig more deeply into the motives of the major players, to question whether Catiline’s threat was as seditious as the representatives of the elite factions, in their own ways, depicted it, and, if not, to consider whether it is actually the grumbling for debt relief that they seek to squelch. “Revolutionary legislation,” he writes, “would mean the wrecking of the comfortable situation of the complacent middle class” (212). With this in mind, the two writers’ distinct attitudes, served well by their chosen genres, can be read together, forming a more complete picture of the late Republican mind.

Tacitus’s “Catiline”—that is, Piso—is far from the rabble-rousing malcontent of yesteryear. From the beginning, Tacitus tells us that the “origin of the conspiracy was not in Piso's personal ambition...I could not easily narrate who first planned it, or whose prompting inspired a scheme into which so many entered” (Tac. Ann. 15.49; Church, tr.). Tacitus’s trademark ambiguity not only helps to inoculate him, but it’s also his way of illustrating the permeation of discontent. Moreover, this foggy haze of ambiguity prevents the emergence of a clearly-defined hero or villain.

To Cicero, the conspirator is the nucleus, whose influence spreads outward. To Sallust, the conspirator is the product of an ignoble age. To Tacitus, the conspirator is a wishy-washy opportunist, safely positioned several rings from the center, who may or may not seize the reins of power. Anthony A. Barrett writes that “Piso seems to have been far from the ideal candidate to be the figurehead of a conspiracy. To many, he must have seemed too much of a clone of the man he was replacing, with his affability, his penchant for the theater, and even his penchant for the wives of friends” (192). Tacitus shows him to be lily-livered and effete, for, at the moment of truth, he shrivels up, unable to address the citizenry and, most critical, the army. He’s a reflection of Nero, but also of the current crop of emperors, the impotence of the senators and the political class—the opposite of an Agricola and even an Epicharis.


Works Cited

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Rebeccan. “Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1.” The Folger SHAKESPEARE, Folger Shakespeare Library, 12 Nov. 2019, shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/henry-v/act-3-scene-1/.

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